Most Affecting Story: Valiant Hearts
My biggest regret this year was that I never got around to writing about Valiant Hearts. Valiant Hearts isn't a great game, it isn't even a good one when it comes to gameplay, but it tells an affecting and nuanced story that hasn't left me since.
Valiant Hearts posits that for individual people, war is something to be endured rather than won. In place of explaining the political origins of the First World War, it follows families split apart by the conflict as they try to preserve some semblance of the lives they lived before the world went mad. Players perform an archaeological role, unearthing artifacts from the war that hint at life in the trenches and back home. There are aspects I didn't care for - the absurdly stereotyped German officers, for instance - but the caricature art style enhanced the horror I felt at the pervasive slaughter. Historically I have some problems with how it depicts the war's violence, (violence toward the player and his allies is grim and bloody, but his attacks on enemies are cartoonish and often nonlethal) but thematically it's a tight ship. In place of attacking other humans, the heroes in Valiant Hearts attack the machinery of war itself - the tanks, airplanes and cannons - driving home that it's war that's the real enemy, not the men in the opposite trench. The game's flawed, but the story's well told.
Most Fully Realized Setting: Assassin's Creed Unity, With a Major Caveat
I struggled with this category. My instinct was to give the nod to Unity since I considered Revolutionary Paris the more difficult achievement than Far Cry 4's Kyrat, but the game's release bugs held me back. In the end I caved - with a caveat.
Unity reached very high with its setting, and it's this great ambition that makes me want to excuse all faults. Revolutionary Paris has an architectural diversity and dynamism it would've been difficult to imagine only five years ago. Side missions and Paris Stories enrich the environment, weaving historical figures and events into the game's fabric and maintaining an illusory depth. While Ubisoft touted the game's enormous crowds, what impressed me were the diverse occupations and actions the NPCs had, whether carrying a flag or fixing a wagon. Look too closely and you'll see repeated faces, it's true, but step back and the city forms a cohesive whole, like a pointillist landscape.
The caveat, of course, is that multiple release bugs marred the experience -so I'm also naming Far Cry 4 as a close second. Is Kyrat Nepal as I saw it? Yes and no. Careful research clearly went into crafting the world, from quest-givers that look remarkably similar to the old women you see in the villages to an island temple that's ripped straight out of Pokhara, but the fictional culture leaves a lot to be desired. The game's nowhere near as deep as Unity's Paris, but the sense of place overwhelms you with every step. If you can't stand the idea of Unity getting this nod, consider Far Cry 4 to have received it instead.
Most Mind-Bending Puzzles: Monument Valley
I'm surprised it took this long for someone to think up M.C. Escher perspective puzzles, but I'm glad it did - had we gotten a game like this earlier it might not have been as elegant and polished as Monument Valley.
While comparisons to Journey spring up due to the game's art, it reminds me more of Portal in how it trains the player to think in an unorthodox fashion before throwing out puzzles that break all logical and physics. This format gives over about half the playtime to tutorial, but a recent expansion added more meat on the bones, since you're able to skip past the training and jump right into puzzles.
Monument Valley marries abstract thinking to abstract beauty.